WASILLA — It’s been three years since Kellsie Green died in the throes of her addiction. It’s been three years since her father John Green started an annual candlelight vigil at Nunley Park in Wasilla to honor Kellsie’s life and over 200 other lives lost to addiction.
“I know it’s really cold but that just shows you how tough us Alaskans are huh?” Green said.
Green and others read the names of over 200 people who died during their struggles with addiction. He said that the list was not just a compilation of names but “lives that were lived.”
“We aren’t here to just recognize and remember their names after their death. They’re people who lived and that’s what we need to celebrate tonight is their lives and support their families that are missing them. Their names aren’t forgotten and they never will be,” Green said.
Jan. 10 is a date Green will never forget. Green said that three years ago, around 8 p.m. an Alaska State Trooper knocked on his door to tell him that his daughter was dead. He said telling his wife the news was even harder the receiving it.
“We knew that this is not just our story, that there are so many of you that are affected by this, that have lost somebody. We wanted to share that love with you and that you’re not alone,” Green said.
Mark Weaver, vice president of Fallen Up Ministries, opened the Vigil with a prayer
“Lord, I just pray for healing. I mean us being out here in these conditions every year is just a testimony to the amount of loss that we’ve had in our community. I just pray that you pour love and your blessings over us tonight and just help us to heal, and help us to love on each other and be in tune with the needs of those that are come here to tonight and across the state…”
Weaver said that recovery means a lot of things, acknowledging that the crowd included people who’re currently in recovery, perhaps some there that are still in the struggle of addiction and of course, families of those afflicted.
“If you identify as that, we just want to draw you closer and have a massive group hug tonight,” Weaver said.
Weaver then called for an actual, giant group hug with the attendees. The group obliged and bundled together into one giant hug that lingered for about a minute.
“Just feel the warmth and feel the love and feel the healing in the moment, right here right now,” Weaver said before asking for a moment of silence to enjoy the embrace.
Alaska’s chief medical officer Dr. Jay Butler was one of several guest speakers that evening. Wearing a furry hat and bright red winter coat, he emerged from the group hug and started speaking into the mic.
“Lead one another with a hug because it’s cold tonight,” Butler said.
Butler said that they were all there for a reason. He said that many people with addictions were standing out in the cold that night and they should, “stand in unity with them.”
“We’re here tonight to remember lives that were lost and there’s actually good news. Despite those numbers that can be depressing- when we talk about numbers, remember we’re talking about people- there were less deaths this past year than in prior years. So we are making progress,” Butler said.
Butler said that in 2018, more lives were saved than ever before, referencing 260 people who survived overdoses after being administered naloxone. He said that honoring the lives lost and bringing more people together into recovery is the “bridge to recovery.”
After reading the list of names, there was a portion open for attendees to talk, be it to share their story or simply share their support. Several attendees went up to speak. Pastor Rick Cavens, of the Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, was one of those voices. He said that this communion of people gathered comes from a place of pain but their gathering ignites unity and hope, casting out the darkness. He quoted early 20th century, Scottish writer, William Barclay, “Endurance is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.”
“By you being here in this cold and in this dark with nothing but alight of a candle, you are turning a hard thing into glory… I also say may you have blessings and hope whenever you look across that table and see an empty seat and know that your loved one was there but please just see in that blessing all the best of who they were,” Cavens said with a prayer.
Cavens asked the crowd to hold their candles high and the soft, yellow glow of their flames washed over them. Someone asked if they could sing Silent Night together. Cavens aptly replied, “Good idea. It’s still Christmas. It’s always Christmas in our hearts.”
Darlene Fox spoke to the crowd with two of her young grandchildren, McKinley, Ella and Kaliah. She said that she lost her daughter Whitney Jan. 5. Darlene’s eyes welled and her voice cracked as she told her story.
“She needed the help. She was looking for the help but she couldn’t find it. She had been looking for a long time to no avail. She suffered not only from addiction but depression and anxiety,” Fox said.
Fox said that Whitney couldn’t get help for her addiction or her depression and anxiety, saying that she had a stigma attached to her, “like many of them do, an ugly stigma.”
“That’s not acceptable. It’s not acceptable. My daughter didn’t die in vain. She was a person. She had a good heart. She loved and was loved. We came out here today to support those suffering, those who have gone on and the ones that are still here supporting them. Nobody is immune to it, nobody,” Fox said.
Fox said that addiction could happen to anyone. She said that everyone as a community needs to make it easier for people struggling with addiction to get help. She thanked everyone for being there and thanked Green for putting it together.
“It’s cold but you know what? We love them more and this is what people in Alaska do for the people we love,” Fox said.
Contact Mat-Su Valley Frontiersman reporter Jacob Mann at email@example.com